“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.” Anna Burns’s Milkman, winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018 (Burns wins the prize as the first Northern Irish writer), opens with this stellar beginning sentence. It sets the tone of the story and foreshadows multiple events, quickly drawing the reader into the story. The premise of the book is meticulously developed; it poses the following question recurringly: What if two groups of people live side by side and are separated not by any concrete wall but by a deeply embedded habit of deliberate ignorance, a willful denial of the other, a persistent determination not to see? Throughout her book, Burns looks deep into this question through the eyes of her female protagonist and explores factors that divide a community and lead to disastrous ramifications.
Set during The Troubles, the ethno-nationalist conflict which erupted in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, the book centers on 18-year-old Middle sister, unmarried, who is raised in Catholic Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. However, the setting is not explicitly mentioned in the book; it is left to readers, with a few clues, place names and years, to connect the dots. The protagonist Middle sister has this habit of “reading-while-walking”, during which she reads classics such as The Brothers Karamazov, or Madame Bovary, or Ivanhoe. Though she wants to use this “as a deterrent against the milkman”—a forty-year-old sexual predator who harasses Middle sister and stalks her everywhere with his “nondescript, shapeshifting” van—people from her community, including her relatives, frown at such a habit. She has an “almost one year so far maybe-boyfriend”, but their relationship status seems to eternally stay at a “maybe”, though they want to date officially and become a “proper pair”. This, unfortunately, can never happen, as the community they live in is perpetually divided by two apparent factions (Renouncer-of-the-state and the Defender-of-the-state).
Both factions of the community turn a blind eye to each other. Rumors, false perceptions are rampant, and also serve as the basis of everyone’s judgment. So, Milkman cashes in on this dark situation, and, with his platoon of thugs, threateningly appears before Middle sister every now and then, which eventually becomes an everyday topic for the rabid gossipers and leads many of them to believe that Middle sister is his mistress.
The sexual harassment and community gossip wear Middle sister out both mentally and physically. Her “inner world” vanishes away, her feelings “stop expressing” and even “stop existing.” She almost reaches a breaking point as she continues to check “under the bed, behind the door, in the wardrobe” to see if the milkman is there. “I realized things had reached the point where I was now checking to see if the community was concealing itself in those tucked-away places too,” Middle sister vents her frustrations. There’s also another stalker—Somebody McSomebody, whom she calls “renouncer-in-fantasy”—who lies in “James Bond mode” and can’t accept the fact that Middle sister is not interested in him. So more gossips run in the community, and if she denies anything no one believes her, not even her mother, and soon she discovers that everyone thinks she is a “beyond-the-pale”, or too different for the community.
Like gossips, the sectarian community is also full of categories and divisions. There is always the “right religion” and the “wrong religion”; “our side of the road” and “the other side of the road”; “over the border” and “over the country”. Even the animals are ear-tagged and have assigned roles in the community. So cats are “vermin, subversive, witch-like, the left hand, bad luck, feminine” and dogs, “sturdy, loyal, feudal, good for man’s account of himself and with a slavish need to be obedient to someone.” Every decision of the members of the community, every moment of action in the book is determined by such categories. They have to constantly know who belongs where, who can do what and what is allowed and what is not. With biting satire, Burns brilliantly describes the repressions of tribalism—the sectarian values and its purism—as the prime subject matter of her book.
What’s really fascinating is how Burns introduces all this to her readers using a dense prose or stream-of-consciousness. Within a well-constructed space, she has managed to capture exactly the essence of her characters. Certain quirks, traits and mannerism—everything is under her radar, expressed through a unique, inventive language that makes for a great reading experience. However, there are some long-winded and rather convoluted sentences in the book, which sometimes slow the reading pace. The following shortened sentence is taken from page 83 (The actual sentence is 182 words long): “‘Mammy,’ they’d said, ‘mought it happen that if you were a female and excessively sporty and this thing called menstruation stopped inside you because you were excessively sporty’ – wee sisters had recently discovered menstruation in a book, not yet through personal experience – ‘then you stopped being excessively sporty and your menstruation returned, would that mean you’d have extra time of menstruation to make up for the gap of not having had it when you should have had it only you couldn’t because your sportiness was blocking the production of your follicle-stimulating hormone.” Except a few sentences like this, there is always an odd kind of rhythm beating at the heart of her sentences and tugging and pushing the punctuation marks all the way till the end.
Milkman delves deep into the human psychological ability to simply ignore what it wishes to see and what it does not. The book continues to resonate once it is completed, for it has a lot to say to us about segregation, totalitarian regime, political violence, sexual harassment and its grim consequences. Burns’s capacious mind has successfully revealed a microscopic account of the lives of traumatized citizens, seen mostly through a woman’s lens, living in a concentric circle of oppression.
Mir Arif is a fiction writer. He works with Arts & Letters.